Occasional Vignettes; Week of Feb. 14

I keep telling myself, and am told by others, that I ought to write more, particularly as one of the principal parts of being a historian is the ability to write effectively. And to make progress in writing one must, as St. Augustine wrote in one of his letters, write, and write a lot, as the prolific Bishop of Hippo certainly did.

So as part of my attempt to write more I shall, insha’allah, begin writing weekly (possibly more but I dare not promise beyond that) installments of vignettes and anecdotal remarks from my week, perhaps brief commentary on whatever primary sources I’m reading in a given week (perhaps also secondary materials if it’s interesting enough). I find that blogging is a useful medium for collating and ever so slightly refining ideas that I would otherwise let flit off into space or consign to a Word file or a notebook; the public-ness of a blog compels me to give slightly more thought and attention to the things I write. Not a lot- blogging is, as advertised, push-button publishing, and like pretty much all the instant conveniences of modern life, quality suffers accordingly.

Still, the fact of writing in a public forum, and being somewhat conscious of it (but only somewhat: blogging still feels half-private, as I neither see the audience face-to-face- or very few members of the audience- nor the work itself in a physical, publicly accessible form) shapes how I write, and I think probably for the better. Then there is the whole interesting matter of one’s blog becoming part of one’s personal archive, here for all to see, alongside the stacks of books, papers, bits and pieces and odds and ends that you do not see.

But that’s a whole other matter.


1. While walking to my favorite café in our venerable Old City I was met, as I often am, by a homeless man. Knoxville has a large homeless/transient population, larger than anywhere in the ‘First World’ I’ve lived. This man struck up a conversation with me, seeing me carrying a couple heavy tomes under my arm: ‘What you studying?’


‘Oh yeah, I love history. What part?’

‘Ah-’ I am immediately reminded at this point of a homeless person I gave a lift to a few months ago (yes, mum, if you’re reading, I occasionally pick up hitch-hikers etc., but you knew that already…); at this point in the what-do-you-do exchange, the homeless person asked quite pointblank, ‘What do historians do, anyway? Anything?’ Ah, yes, um…). I continued: ‘Medieval stuff mostly.’

‘Oh, my favorite is Ghengis Khan.’

‘My era is a little earlier, mainly.’


We proceeded to speak briefly of the joys and travails of history, and my new friend encouraged me to stick with it. He then asked me for a little change so as to buy himself a beer for St. Valentine’s Day. I admire honesty so I gave him, I think it was, a dollar fifty. Not having anyone else to buy a beer for on St. Valentine’s, I was actually glad this time to do so. We parted company.

There is a whole dialectic of do-I-give-money-to-homeless-people, but I will not engage it here, other than to say I usually do. Cf. St. John the Almsgiver. Caveat lector– he’s a bit radical, might make you a little uncomfortable. At least that’s how it is for me.

At any rate I had been in a rather bad nasty mood- long, dull story that only reveals my propensity for anger under frustration- and this particular man, somehow, helped relieve it.

2. Also seen today, first on Gay Street then later when she was walking along Chapman Highway across the river: a lady who wears red and black, in a sort of uniform that looks like a cross between a traffic attendant and a nineteenth century zouave. Very impressive. She also had a baton which she was swinging both times very deliberately.

3. Sitting in the coffee house studying I overheard the people next to me talking about the church shooting in Knoxville last fall. Turns out one of the women sitting there was in the church when it happened, and she proceeded to describe it in detail to her companions, and to me the unintentional voyeur listening at the table over.

One of her companions was very adamantly in favor the death penalty, swift and immediate; she wasn’t so sure. It was complicated, she said: being at the intersection of death and life (I paraphrase), in the moment when the bullets are- literally- flying and you are thinking about the most trivial things and the most serious things- that man has on a nice tie, is this women lying over there going to die right here should I help her where are the kids? I don’t know how I feel towards that man. Being there changes things.

What I wanted to say but did not say and probably it’s best that I didn’t, because after all I really know nothing: but if we condemn that man to death (as he surely deserves) we condemn ourselves to death, don’t we? There is blood on my hands and on yours; I silently participate in a deeply violent and bloody order of things and it almost never weighs on my conscience. And I myself know myself to have the murderous anger and rage inside of me; hell I felt it this very morning over the dumbest thing and then was angry at myself (angry again!) for my stupid brutish anger. It’s there in all our blood; it’s I who lashed out against God on the tree and cursed him and hoped to die- that will show them/Him! So all I can say and I have to say it over and over and over again is: Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. What else can we say?

An Ineffable Transformation

Yesterday we remembered the two saints who are probably the most prominent representatives of the Syriac traditions in the Western churches- St. Ephrem and St. Isaac. A translation by Sebastian Brock of St. Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise was the very first Patristic work I ever purchased; I don’t recall now why I bought that particular one out of all the Patristic translations I could have picked from.

I don’t recall the first time I came across St. Isaac, but I do know that his writings have impacted me greatly (not greatly enough of course- if I could really assimilate just a handful of his teachings on prayer, peace, silence, and the like- I’d probably not be blogging!). That St. Isaac was and is shared across not only his native Church of the East but also among the Miaphysites, the Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholicism (and I would imagine some Protestant as well) is encouraging and a hopeful sign of the possibilities that- still- inhere within Christianity. Granted, his reception into the Miaphysite and later Chalcedonian communions involved a little ‘fixing up,’ but that does not detract from the importance and significance of his cross-traditions reception.

St. Ephrem and St. Isaac, pray to God for us!

From St. Isaac:

An illustration of what is hidden in seedlings can be seen through the labours which the saints and other godly persons endure in themselves for the sake of God. For under ordinary appearance of seeds at the time when the land is tilled April’s own transformation keeps hidden the abundance of ineffable transformations and the beauty of the glorious variegated colours which it will (in due course) bring out and display, as a wonderful vesture and adornment for the earth that had been nurturing the seeds within herself.

This symbolic significance which can be recognized in tiny seeds holy people engrave spiritually in their minds at times when their ministry is depressing and darkened, as a demonstration that the Creator’s power will be made known in them, and they wait expectantly to see in themselves, as a result of the strength of these ordinary labours, an ineffable transformation which will become perceptible as a result of them, through the working of the Holy Spirit which they will receive subsequently in accordance with the progress of their ascetic conduct.

(From the CSCO translation by Brock, part ii, chapter xxiii.)

The Door of Love To All Men

The soul which bears abundant clusters of fruit is the one which has divested itself of anxiety, uncertainty and dejectedness and put on calm, peace, and joy in God; has shut the door of perturbing thoughts, and opened the door of love to all men; has watched continually, night and day, at the door of its heart; has driven out of itself anything that says: ‘This man is good and that man is bad; this man is just and that man is a sinner.’ [It is the soul that] has sat on the high throne of its heart, and contemplated its armies and its helpers who are the mind, the intelligence, the intellect, the knowledge and the discernment; and has ordered and pacified them with meekness so that none of them should snarl with wrath, envy or wickedness, and that the mind should not be obscured by the thick clouds of perplexity. On the other hand the barren soul is the one which is clad in rancour, anxiety, perplexity, distress, dejectedness and perturbation, and which judges its neighbour as being good or evil.

Simon of Taibutheh (d. 680)

Pro-War is Not Pro-Life!

From Metropolitan Jonah’s message for Sanctity of Life Sunday:

All the sins against humanity, abortion, euthanasia, war, violence, and victimization of all kinds, are the results of depersonalization. Whether it is “the unwanted pregnancy”, or worse, “the fetus” rather than “my son” or “my daughter;” whether it is “the enemy” rather than Joe or Harry (maybe Ahmed or Mohammed), the same depersonalization allows us to fulfill our own selfishness against the obstacle to my will. How many of our elderly, our parents and grandparents, live forgotten in isolation and loneliness? How many Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and American youths will we sacrifice to agonizing injuries and deaths for the sake of our political will? They are called “soldiers,” or “enemy combatants” or “civilian casualties” or any variety of other euphemisms to deny their personhood. But ask their parents or children! Pro-war is NOT pro-life! God weeps for our callousness.

He Put On Our Garment To Be Seen By Us

Although worshiped with the Father
he was sent as a messenger;
he put on our garment, to be seen by us;
walked as a servant,
appeared as a healer,
became as a brother,
served as a slave,
spoke as a teacher,
listened as a student,
fought as a mighty man,
succumbed as a vanquished one;
he was sold as a vassal,
he freed as a lord,
he reproved as a judge,
he was condemned as a malefactor.

With the needy he was needy,
with the almsgivers he gave to the poor,
with the fasters fasting,
with the diners dining,
with the persecuted he was persecuted,
with the fighter he fought,
with those subject to the law keeping the law,
with God a rewarder of those who labour;
with the sons an heir,
with the Father a giver of inheritance,
with the supplicators entreating,
with the Father granting petitions,
with the envoys an emissary,
with the sinners a sacrificed lamb,
with the priests an atoning high priest,

with the departed slain,
with God raising the dead,
with the persecuted persecuted,
with God vindicating the persecuted;
with the reviled reviled,
with the wounded smitten,
with God healing,
with the sick as an invalid,
with the strong strong,
with the perfect perfect,
with the deprived as one deprived,
that he might perfect them;
with the redeemers as a redeemer,
with the imprisoned a prisoner,
so that when he was subjected to death
he might redeem the captives.

St. John the Solitary

How Great Is Your Banquet

I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of song,
but the wine- the utterance of praise- at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise.

The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent Wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.

You who are so just, if at a wedding feast not Your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do You at this wedding feast fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.

Jesus, You were invited to a wedding feast of others,
here is Your own pure and fair wedding feast: gladden
Your rejuvenated people,
for Your guests too, O Lord, need
Your songs: let Your harp utter.

The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber,
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts/
And if a single body is a wedding feast for You,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!

St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Faith 14:1-5

The Work of God

A particularly wonderful and challenging (and much needed on my part) post by Rachel Fulton (ie Fencing Bear at Prayer):

‘The first thing to realize about praying the Hours is that it is not about me or you or our precious interior feelings, but about God. It is, as Taunton so aptly put it, about praying Christ’s prayer to the Father, about “putting on” Christ and becoming his mouthpiece. We pray “through Christ” because we are praying the words Christ used to pray, particularly the psalms. From this perspective, it doesn’t really matter whether we feel anything at all, mystical, meditative, contemplative or otherwise, so long as we are praying with our mouths and our full attention. The point is for the Church–that is, all of us, not just the institution–to be “[praising] the justice of [God’s] decrees,” as the psalmist puts it, “seven times each day” (Psalm 119:164).’

Read the rest: The Work of God.

Strangeness in the Stacks, And On Seeing (And Refusing to Hate)

This afternoon I made a quick run from my office to the library to retrieve a couple books on early Islamic historiography. Normally this sort of book retrival is as uneventful as one would probably imagine it to be. Not this afternoon. I come to the correct section- the DS38s- an area I’ve been in and out of this semester, and remove a volume. I notice that a piece of paper is stuck in it, which I remove (one time I found five dollars in a library book and often hope I will find some more, though so far no more luck, though I did find 200 dirhams on a dirt road outside of Fes in March…). I open the folded paper, and am greeted with the words (I promise you none of this is made up): ‘Attention Muslim Visitors to America! Here are rules for getting along in America.’

The paper then proceeds to list, um, rules for Muslims in America, which include such enlightening things as: ‘You do not have the right to enslave anyone at any time for any reason [shoot!]. This is going on in Mauritania, in Darfur, in Sudan [somewhere between Darfur and Mauritania, right?] and elsewhere in the Moslem world. Muslims must approve, since they don’t even protest against it.’

‘You do not have the right to riot or pillage…’

‘You come here to expecting to practice your religion, yet your home country persecutes other religions. You should be grateful to this country instead of hostile. Until your country [the Moslem one, I guess- that really big one you know] cleans its own house, it has no business criticizing America for anything. Respect other people’s rights in every way or leave.’

Etc. After recovering from the shock that we’re apparently not allowed to riot and pillage, and therefore having to immediately adjust my evening plans, I looked around in the DS38s, and found more of these fliers stuck in books. In one book (a translations of the early Islamic historian al-Tabari’s work on the ‘Abbasids) there were two copies (everyone knows terrorists are really into those crazy cat ‘Abbasid caliphs). However, there were no fliers in books outside of the DS38s, which was perhaps the most bizarre part of it. I didn’t think at the time to look in the section of the stacks with the books on Islamic theology, jurisprudence, etc., so I’ve no idea if these fliers were more widely distributed. Why the DS38s- did our zealous defender of America suppose those horrid foreign Muslims mainly read historiographical work? One can only speculate. At any rate, it was an all around strange experience, not least for the reminder that my particular field of study- medieval Islam and Eastern Christianity- has all sorts of very immediate inroads in everyday life, even here in East Tennessee. It was also a reminder- not that one is needed- that for many people in this country, their only image of Muslims is the violent fundamentalist, the crazy bearded man in a cave, the zealot gunman in Mumbai, or some vague (heavily bearded and turbaned) figure flitting about a madrasa. This is the image they project on all Muslims, everywhere, including those who live and work and worship here.

I don’t know what it’s like for Muslim immigrants here in East Tennessee; a few weeks ago I talked with a young man from Bulgaria who had been working in Pigeon Forge on a temporary visa. While not Muslim, he had an accent and looked ‘Eastern’; he said that occasionally people would come in and speak in their most affected local accent and in general try to yank his chain, knowing that English was his second language. I had a roommate earlier in the year who was working at a JiffyLube out in North Knoxville; he is from Maine and sounds like it. His co-workers constantly harrased him over his origins, until he finally left the place. Feelings towards Latinos here seem to be strained at the least, which is strange since there are so few Latinos around. So I wonder- with just the evidence of my library propogandist to go on- if the same sentiments flow towards people from the Islamic world. Probably, if I had to guess. And let’s be clear- the sentiments that lay behind my anonymous writer are at the least racist: all Muslims are, secretly if not openly, party to the worst of crimes, are part of the Problem. You may be tolerated here, but only barely, and we don’t really trust you, or want you here. Maybe it’s too much to call the web of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings (some of which lie just under the surface and only show up in public from time to time, maybe over a secretly Muslim Presidential candidate…) hatred, but I’m pretty sure parsing it that way is all too often accurate.

Hatred of the brown-skinned peoples of the dar al-islam has been both facilitated by and fostered by our wars in the Middle East. Being able to reduce all Muslims and Arabs to that image of barbarian bloodthirsty (or secretly restrained for purposes of infiltration) savages lets one think about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever else without associating the deaths incurred with real humans; those people are not my neighbor, are not even really human. Muslim people are people who are either shooting and blowing up things or getting blown up and shot; that is what they are there for and nothing can change it (‘they’ve always been like that’). Of course this is nonsense, and many of us know that it’s nonsense. But it’s powerful nonsense, and it infiltrates our minds and hearts, even when we recognize it for what it is. Way back in the spring while in Morocco I had been reading the news out of Iraq online, and I recall reading some particularly troubling stuff. I took a walk down towards the old city, and as I walked I looked at the people- men, women, kids- I was passing, and thought: people who look like this are the ones dying every —- day in Iraq, with my tax money, my unspoken acceptance. People like this, like the family I’m living with [see the photos below], like the people I am seeing now, living alongside. Real human beings. Of course I’ve long known all that- but for some reason it just clicked, and I nearly broke down with emotion, there on the sidewalk between the Hotel Zalagh and the McDonalds… These ‘bloodthirsty savages’ that we are conditioned to throw all together in one horrible image and hate- they have lives, dreams, children, flesh, blood, souls, voices, faces.

So. That leaves me a long ways from a bizarre occurrence in the library stacks.

Lord have mercy.


Said Muhammad, Saida Fatima, and their two kids, Maryam and Yusef.


This man, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, makes excellent fried bread. He also helped me practice my fusha Arabic (though one of his friends suggested I ought to drop the classical stuff and just do ‘street Arabic’!)


A zellij craftsman over in the Andalusian quarter.


Change We Can Believe In

From Spiked: Under Obama No Child Left Unmonitored. Don’t like No Child Left Behind? Notice that Federal intervention in education is producing less than admirable results? Question the validity of subjecting education to the dictates of State and Big Capital? The solution of the statist-left: make it bigger! Upsize! Increase funding! Greater federal control! If the Federalization of all education isn’t working, it needs to be intensified. We must increase the devotion of all levels of education to the needs of capital, er, the business sector. We must make sure poor parents are doing their bit to raise good wards for State and Capital- and remember, there’s no way Federal policy could ever be racist or classist- remember, we did that whole making history thing, right?

This is just one small aspect of the sort of leftist imperialism (external and internal) that in insiduousness and long-term viability is probably more destructive and dangerous than rightist sorts. Rightist statism has lately tended to manifest itself in spectacular and very public outbursts of violence and programs of mass control, though in the past couple of years even the Bush administration has toned down much of its action (probably out of sheer necessity). The left, on the other hand, is rather more clever about things in that much of its systems of violence and control are more hidden. Education is a useful example; abortion is another example of systematic violence that lies beneath the surface (literally in some respects) of society and even political discourse: “choice,” “reproductive health,” and so on are used to avoid the stark implications of reality. Likewise, we call our wars “missions to spread democracy,” “humanitarian interventions,” disguising the actual horrific nature of war.

Both sides also insiduously exploit religion to advance their causes, whether it’s the latest war as a crusade from God or abortion as a “spiritual sacrament.” The left tends to be in denial about its religious aspect, since part of its campaign against the right is “separation of church and state,” by which of course nothing more is meant that separation of rightist religion from the state; statist-leftist religion, whether in the guises of protected Christianities, bourgouis environmentalism, or the whole smorgasboard of liberal pieties used to advance the agenda of the day- none of these forms of religiosity are ever envisioned as being separated from the State. Instead, religion- and the same attitude exists on the statist-right- is perfectly acceptable so long as it remains in the service of a greater mission, that of the statist-left.

This is ultimately my problem also of course and I fall under the label of hypocrite too: I like my religion, just let’s not take this too seriously, eh? Sure, some of that exoticly-flavoured Orthodoxy can show through here and there, since it’s possibly advantageous out here in the academy. But let too much through, and you’re courting danger. That’s the message that is continually broadcast, and my internalization of it is hardly only from external forces- in tandem with my own passions, the desire to keep my “religion” nicely compartmentalized is terribly strong. Only the radical action of God can really ever break me, or anyone else, left or right or sideways, out of it.

Thoughts on Icons

1. The icon embraces the tension of the one and the many, of the universal and the particular. Each icon presents the mystery of the person as a particular mystery, the mystery of the named person who participates in the universal- yet particularly received- energies of God, is divinized. Divinization does not reduce the person into indistinguishableness; rather, it “expands” the person into her true self, her true realization in God. So the icon is not simply naturalism, but instead leans towards the mystery of realized personhood, the stylization of the icon indicating that this person has entered into this reality. When I view an icon I see a manifestation of what a true person can be, I am at once connected to that person and I am encouraged to live out my personhood in the energies of God.

The icon is also the possibility- both in itself and in what it says about matter- of the energies of God becoming manifest in a bewildering plurality of people and places and under a massive plurality of names and languages. Ambrosius Giakalis describes this potency in relation to the iconoclastic heresy:

“Fundamentally it was a debate about the locus of the holy. For holiness was not just a matter of personal piety; it was closely connected with the exercise of power in society. The legitimacy of material images as such was never a point at issue. The controversy revolved around which images could be regarded as vehicles of the holy. For the iconoclasts the holy was mediated to the people through material things consecrated by the clergy- the basilica with its liturgy, the Eucharist, the symbol of the cross. To have the holy mediated by a myriad icons seemed to them to dilute it to the point at which it ceased to be efficacious. The iconophiles, by contrast, sought through the icon to enable the holy to permeate the material world.”

The icon threatens the “secular” and the “bourgeois” in a way spiritualism and mere anti-materialism (in the strict sense of the word) cannot: it refuses to concede the created, the crafted, the material to the Devil, to the darkness of the age. The icon resists the commodification of everything, not by withdrawing from the material, from the manufactured even, but by embracing material reality and claiming it also for the Incarnate God. The material is not merely material for commodification and sale, for the use and exploitation of the fallen passions. The world is not conceded to the Devil; the world is not conceded to capitalism or the state or anyone else, but is contested by Christ and His saints. The icon then marks out materiality and material space as God’s; it is a redemption and a sign of redemption of matter, of the physical world, because it immediately participates in and transcends the “physical.”

2. Again, icons destabilize our language, by advocating the breaking in of God upon the world, of elevating the mystery of personhood in a manner we cannot speak. Early apologetics for icons emphasized their utility in educating the illiterate, yet at the same time they speak to the highly educated: the illiterate and the scholar meet on this un-worded ground of the Word, where the image cuts through language ultimately and moves the viewer/venerator to a different plane of knowledge, of participation. Kissing the icon is an action, is a movement beyond spoken language. It is an act of faith that expresses itself beyond what our words- as important as they are- are capable of. The image seen, the prayer uttered, the kiss done: multiple levels of the material and spiritual are involved, all becoming one transcendent act of prayer and veneration, reclaiming the whole for God, while pushing the limits of what can be said and what is expected of the world.